Clara O’Shea, an associate lecturer at Moray House School of Education, has been grappling with a problem: How do you get students to engage critically with each other and the course materials in a postgraduate, online course taken by part-time students across the globe? In this post, she presents an innovative solution, drawing on games-based learning…
I teach on the Masters of Digital Education, which takes a takes a very collaborative, communal approach to learning. It has been an ongoing frustration for me that, despite many forms of encouragement, students struggle to overcome the barriers around working together as critical friends. There seems to have always been something preventing most students in engaging with activities that could foster their own understanding and creation of quality academic work (connoisseurship) through engagement with others: balancing study and full-time work, anxiety about sharing their own work, fear of being able to offer useful criticism, or not valuing peer review Even on a course about assessment, where we thoughtfully discuss literature that shows the importance of peer review and include peer work in the assessment design, I have not been able to make engagement with the course and their peers a central focus for my students.
In her literature review on student engagement, Vicki Trowler (2010) argues that “Engagement is more than involvement or participation – it requires feelings and sensemaking as well as activity” (p.5). She points to three dimensions of engagement – behavioural, emotional and cognitive – and notes how they can each encompass positive, negative and non-forms of engagement (e.g. a positive behavioural engagement may be participating enthusiastically in lectures, negative may be disrupting or boycotting lectures, and non-engagement simply skipping them).
As I began to design my next Masters course (An Introduction to Digital Game-Based Learning – IDGBL), the challenge was to think of a pedagogical strategy that would engage students across those three dimensions. It would need to be meaningful to them (and me!), to make sense within the wider course work, to address those worthy points from the assessment literature on criticality, connoisseurship and peer work, and to be relatively low on administrative and technical demands. I also wanted something that fit games-based learning principles: having the right level of risk and challenge (not too little, not too much), offering both clear cut and unpredictable rewards, scaffolding engagement, and was, if not ‘fun’ per se, then at least playful in nature.
The solution: The course cup
In discussions with my excellent colleagues, Hamish Macleod and Noreen Dunnett, we developed the idea of a ‘course cup’, drawing both on the Harry Potter ‘house cup’ (“10 points for Gryffindor!”), and also on charity goal-tracking gauges that marked out milestones achieved by the collective working together. As milestones were reached, the class won assessment-related rewards, including examples (not exemplars) of past student work, extended assignment deadlines, and specific tutor feedforward on individual draft assignments.
The cup ran throughout the 12-week course. The idea was introduced to students a few weeks into semester and was positioned as an activity where the class would work together to achieve useful rewards for their learning and get to participate in some meta-experience of game-based learning. Although I proposed a general outline of the mechanics, these were negotiated with the class and continued to be re-negotiated as the course progressed.
Student contributions ranged from sharing resources, leading ‘field trips’ in games like Minecraft and World of Warcraft, sharing draft assignments, providing feedback on peer drafts, and creating useful supports for each other. Students could nominate others for points outside the originally agreed parameters and the tutors could also give points as they saw fit. I made sure to almost randomly add points at times because unpredictable rewards have been shown to encourage engagement more than predictable ones (think of slot machines!).
No points were ever deducted from the cup, and there were no leaderboards or intended competition between students. We did use a spreadsheet to track who made contributions to the cup, points earned and links to those contributions as part of our tallying of points. Occasionally, I’d acknowledge particularly impressive contributions (via Twitter or the forum) but no student was ever called out for not participating.
The cup was a surprising success in terms of participation, course dynamics, encouraging good course citizenship and in developing individual understandings of what constitutes quality in academic work Particularly noted by students was the sense of community, the increased motivation for social learning and an “All for one, one for all” spirit. Students noted changes in their own atttitudes too. As an example, a student who was unenthusiastic about peer work at the start of the course, was heavily and happily engaged with peer review by the end of the course, finding it motivating, useful and meaningful.
Relating this back to Trowler’s points about engagement, we found that by giving extrinsic rewards for behavior (i.e. earning points will help you with your assessments), we encouraged positive engagement behaviours, which led to cognitive and affective changes. Doing, effectively, led to thinking and feeling in more engaged ways.
Trowler, V. (2010). Student engagement literature review. York: Higher Education Academy.
If you’re interested in knowing more about where the ideas came from in the assessment and games-based learning literature, check out work by David Carless, David Nicol, Royce Sadler, Dai Hounsell, Tom Malone and James Paul Gee. Or get in touch with Clara for a coffee and a chat 🙂